Home > CSS Design, Industry Humor, Internet, Web Design > On the Web, Size Does Matter

On the Web, Size Does Matter


Determining the appropriate width of a website has always been a tricky matter. Different monitor sizes, non-maximized browser windows, toolbars, adjustable OS elements all add to the variability. Early on there were some clever approaches, like this (just resize your window to the width of the image!). There were also many novice designers who built things at literal screen resolutions, say 800×600 or 1024×768. The problem is that with browser chrome and OS elements in place, your actual usable browser width was nowhere near that, more like 760 or ~960.

There’s also the long running debate of fixed width sites versus fluid or dynamic width sites.  There are several ways to implement a fluid width. Early sites simply didn’t specify a width, which on modern screens leads to absurdly wide columns of text which are awful in terms of readability. If you’re page is filled with content you could also break it up into smaller chunks and have them float to the right of each other, so that on a wider screen they’ll appear horizontally but on narrower screens they’ll cascade vertically.

Another more recent approach takes advantage of the CSS tags min-width and max-width to set limits, which help adapt the page to different sizes, but still retain the same general layout and readability (here’s a nice example). As usual though, these properties aren’t supported in IE6 so hacks and workarounds are used. In broad terms there are good reasons and cases for both types of layout, but in the CPG and other consumer marketing sectors we typically work in, brand guidelines and design specs usually lend themselves to the more tightly defined fixed widths.

For several years now, the predominant screen resolution for general purpose sites has been 1024×768, meaning that we could build sites at 960 – 980 px wide and fill those users screens fairly well. What we’re beginning to see though, is more diversity in screen sizes above 1024 wide. Widescreen monitors up to 30″ (both 16×9 and 16×10 aspect ratios), older 4×3 monitors, and people using HDTVs as monitors bring dozens of possible resolutions into play.

How do we accomodate these…what’s the new 960? Some people have picked conservative estimates, but those don’t seem to really utilize much of the space available on many systems. A counterpoint to that is also the success of netbooks, ie tiny laptop computers, whose screens are typically much lower resolution, though often widescreen in ratio. Bring mobile phones into the equation (some that use mobile styles and others like the iPhone that pull the full site styles), and you’ve just got a mess on your hands!

Different style sheets can help, and perhaps we strive for more use of min and max widths, but what are your thoughts on a new standard in fixed widths?  Is it time, or do we need more stats on larger resolution screens? Are we destined to work at 960 for years to come?

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